- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2006

BERLIN — One of communist East Germany’s ugliest but best-loved buildings has a date with a wrecking ball in the coming weeks, sparking an outpouring of nostalgia for still-cherished aspects of life in the shadow of the Berlin Wall.

The Palace of the Republic, a socialist realist monstrosity of bronze mirrored windows and steel girders, once housed both the rubber-stamp parliament and an entertainment complex that was unparalleled behind the Iron Curtain.

Easterners who were bused in from across the country have fond memories of a giant dance floor on hydraulic lifts, bowling alleys, a wine bar, theater, cafes and an international list of concert headliners, including Harry Belafonte and Carlos Santana.

However, Berlin’s aspirations to spruce up its city center, a confused landscape scarred by a tumultuous history, have led to plans to tear down the now gutted building and reconstruct an imperial castle in its place.

Many Easterners have blasted the decision, made by the federal parliament after a decade-long debate, as insensitive and pointless.

The chairwoman of a group dedicated to saving the building, Liselotte Schulz, believes old Cold War battles are still being fought over this piece of prime real estate in the heart of the reunited city.

“They want to destroy any trace of the GDR,” she says in an interview outside the palace, using the acronym for communist East Germany’s official name.

“And 20 percent unemployment and disappearing companies is what they have to show for it. It is outrageous that they’re wasting working people’s money without a clue what they want to do now.”

Miss Schulz, like many Easterners, says she does not mourn the Stalinist state but misses the security and sense of solidarity felt under communism, which gave way to waves of layoffs and bankruptcies in the post-unification years.

“People had support with their worries and fears, and not even the church manages to do that today,” she says.

Many have projected that ambivalence about the new Germany onto the condemned palace.

The building’s cavernous halls, now stripped of asbestos, in recent years have captured the imagination of a younger generation with a series of art installations, some of which attracted huge crowds to the hip “new” venue.

But the city-state of Berlin and the federal government are banking on the construction of a more “aesthetic” cultural center on the site, behind replicas of the facade of the Hohenzollern castle, the former residence of the kaisers.

In 1950, in a blow to a symbol of Prussian pomp and militarism, the communists ripped down the sumptuous baroque building, which had sustained heavy damage from Allied bombing in World War II.

The city fathers dream of restoring the elegant continuity of the grand Unter den Linden boulevard, which once culminated in the castle and the matching — and still standing — Protestant cathedral.

A leader of the local chapter of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, Frank Henkel, calls the palace a “Socialist eyesore.”

“There is still a gaping wound in the heart of Berlin. That is why the city needs the castle,” he says.

Nevertheless, although the plans are in motion, thousands of Easterners say they will not let the palace go without a fight and have staged a series of protests.

“It would be complete nonsense to build a castle here; you might as well bring back the kaiser,” fumes Miss Schulz, who worked as an electrical technician in East Germany.

“Both the castle ruins and now the ruins made of the palace are about an ideology that seeks to eliminate the traces of what came before,” says cabaret artist Peter Ensikat. “What started with the kaiser’s castle is continuing with the palace as a farce.”

Vague plans for the new castle and all but non-existent financing for what could be a 780 million euro ($947 million) project have compounded the anger.

City authorities have earmarked 12 million euros ($14.5 million) for the destruction of the palace alone but acknowledge that the tab could run to 20 million euros ($24.2 million) by the time they have finished early next year.

The gaping hole in the ground will be filled with sand and water, then topped with planted grass.

The chief city development official, Ingeborg Junge-Reyer, assures that there will be other recreational uses until building on the castle finally begins, as well as sections reserved for archaeological digs and information panels on the future of the site.

“We know it is not enough to put in a lawn,” she told reporters.

For Miss Schulz, the emotional debate reflects Germany’s enduring difficulty in dealing with its history.

“The Germans have a fractured relationship with their past,” she says. “Just look at our architecture, and you see that.”

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